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Democrats pull surveillance bill after Trump veto threat

UPDATED: Thu., May 28, 2020

In this May 14, 2020, file photo House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. Democrats on Thursday pulled legislation from the House floor that would have extended FBI surveillance authorities after President Donald Trump and Republicans turned against the legislation, ensuring its defeat. (Andrew Harnik / AP)
In this May 14, 2020, file photo House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. Democrats on Thursday pulled legislation from the House floor that would have extended FBI surveillance authorities after President Donald Trump and Republicans turned against the legislation, ensuring its defeat. (Andrew Harnik / AP)
By Mary Clare Jalonick and Eric Tucker Associated Press

WASHINGTON – Democrats on Thursday pulled legislation from the House floor to extend FBI surveillance authorities after President Donald Trump and Republicans turned against the measure and ensured its defeat. The House later voted 284-122 to officially start those negotiations.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said there instead would be a new round of negotiations with the Senate over the expired powers the FBI considers vital in fighting terrorism. The House later voted 284-122 to officially start those negotiations.

The impasse raised the potential for the surveillance powers to remain expired indefinitely. The provisions, which lapsed in March, allow the FBI to get a court order for business records in national security investigations and conduct surveillance on subjects without establishing they’re acting on behalf of an international terrorism organization. They also make it easier for investigators to continue eavesdropping on a subject who has switched cellphone providers to thwart detection.

A bill renewing those authorities passed the Senate with 80 votes earlier this month, and it appeared on track for easy passage. The House had overwhelmingly supported a similar measure in March with the support of 126 Republicans. That bill was a compromise worked out between the two parties and Attorney General William Barr.

But the compromise crumbled this week as Trump threatened a veto and House Republicans who had once voted for the bill quickly followed his lead.

House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, who praised the bill in March and said it included “important reforms“ to guard against abuses, reversed that stance when Trump said he opposed it. On Thursday, McCarthy said Congress should “take a pause.“

Pelosi criticized Republicans for the about-face, noting that some were praising the legislation as recently as Wednesday morning. She said that as soon as the president made his views known, “the commitment to national security disappeared.”

Without a veto-proof majority, Pelosi said, the House would not attempt to pass the measure and instead start direct negotiations. Democrats had scheduled a vote on the legislation Wednesday but adjourned without holding it as it became clear the votes were not there. Dozens of House Democrats were opposed to the bill.

McCarthy said he supported the move to renew negotiations, saying that was “the appropriate thing to do.”

In threatening a veto, Trump cited his frustration with surveillance practices during the Russia investigation, which he refers to as a witch hunt.

On Twitter Thursday, Trump praised “GREAT Republican Congressmen & Congresswomen” who blocked the bill “that would just perpetuate the abuse that produced the Greatest Political Crime In the History of the U.S., the Russian Witch-Hunt. Fantastic Job!”

An inspector general report documented serious mistakes in how the FBI used its authorities during its probe into ties between the Trump presidential campaign and Russia, though it said the FBI was justified in opening the investigation and and found no evidence that it acted with political bias. The problems documented included errors and omissions in applications the FBI submitted under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to monitor a former Trump campaign adviser.

Republicans have historically been hawkish on preserving surveillance powers in the name of national security, and the powers up for renewal aren’t directly related to the errors that were uncovered during the Russia investigation.

But Trump has used the legislation to criticize the investigation, which eventually was turned over to special counsel Robert Mueller. Mueller found insufficient evidence to establish a criminal conspiracy between his campaign and Russia but said it could not exonerate Trump on obstruction of justice.

Complicating matters on the surveillance bill were new objections from the Justice Department and old divisions within the Democratic Party. The department said it opposed a Senate add to the bill that would attempt to boost protections for some surveillance subjects, and Democrats who have long opposed surveillance laws reiterated on Wednesday that they wouldn’t support the bill.

The only difference between the House and Senate bills is the amendment adopted by the Senate with 77 votes. That bipartisan language, sponsored by Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, would allow more third-party oversight to protect people in some surveillance cases.

The Justice Department said Wednesday that the amended Senate version of the bill would “weaken national security tools while doing nothing to address the abuses” identified by the inspector general’s report.

And the leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which has about 70 Democratic House members, reiterated Wednesday that they’d oppose the bill, saying the legislation doesn’t do enough to protect Americans’ privacy.

“We cannot in good conscience vote for legislation that violates Americans’ fundamental right to privacy,” said the progressive caucus’ leaders, Reps. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., and Mark Pocan, D-Wis.

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